Struggling to keep up with the news stories? Here’s how we got to the political impasse and devastating humanitarian crisis in war-torn Ukraine.
Part of the Soviet Union until 1991, Ukraine is sandwiched between Russia and the EU, geographically and ideologically. In November 2014, former President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a trade deal with the EU, taking a $15 billion bailout from Russia instead. Huge protests started in Kiev’s Midan Square as many Ukrainians saw closer cooperation with the EU as the key to their economic future. Rallies turned violent and Ukrainian military and police cracked down hard, leaving dozens of Ukrainians dead. A growing ultra-right wing militia of Neo-Nazi Ukrainians were blamed for much of the violence. The opposition called for new elections and protestors took over the presidential palace, ousting Yanukovitch who fled to Russia.
Oleksandr Turchynov took charge as Interim President. The country was still split; Eastern Ukraine has close cultural ties to Russia (46% speak Russian), while the rest of the Ukraine leans towards Europe. Determined not to lose its influence in Ukraine, the Russian military annexed key buildings in the oil and gas-rich Crimean peninsula, where the population is overwhelmingly pro-Russian. Crimean politicians set a referendum In March– 90% of Crimeans voted to join Russia. Putin declared Crimea part of Russia and the EU and US imposed the first raft of economic sanctions.
Rebels gain industrial heartlands
In April 2014, pro-Russian rebels took hold of Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, bolstered by Russian troops from across the border. Ukrainian troops fought back, resulting in intense violence that caused 1000 deaths between April and July, many of them civilians. In a referendum on May 11, 89-96% of people in Luhansk and Donetsk regions voted for sovereignty, prompting rebels to declare them ‘People’s Republics’. After elections on May 25, Pietro Poroshenko was elected Ukrainian President with a pro-EU, pro-union stance. In July flight MH17 was allegedly shot down by rebels over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board and triggering more EU sanctions against Russia. Despite evidence to the contrary, Russia denied sending troops and weapons over to Ukraine.
In November, Ukraine stopped all banking operations in the rebel-held East, which is effectively cut off from the rest of the country. By December, the state stopped all benefits and pensions payments to citizens there, leaving many Ukrainians destitute. Food, medical and pharmaceutical supplies are all running drastically low. In February 2015 Putin, Poroshenko, Hollande and Merkel agreed a fragile ceasefire in Minsk, which demands a new Ukrainian constitution with decentralisation by the end of 2015. The ceasefire held apart from in Debaltseve, where rebels fought Ukrainian troops for control of the strategic rail hub. Citizens fled their homes and after heavy fighting rebels defeated the army.
Devastating humanitarian impact
At least 1.1 million people are displaced in the region, with some estimates as high as 3 million. A further 743,000 have left Ukraine because of the conflict. UN estimates put the death toll at 6,000. The country’s economy has shrunk by 7% in 2014 and the hryvnia has lost two-thirds of its value. Though Porenshenko is against it, a referendum on Ukrainian federalisation is a possibility being discussed.